Chief Justice John Roberts initially sided with the Supreme Court’s four conservative justices to strike down the heart of President Obama’s health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, according to CBS News report, but later changed his position and formed an alliance with liberals to uphold the bulk of the law.
John Roberts was set to vote with conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, as well as the so-called swing Justice Anthony Kennedy to strike down the health-care act as an overreach of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
But — probably because critical media coverage suggested such an outcome would be devastating to the reputation of the Supreme Court — Roberts changed his mind.
“Roberts pays attention to media coverage. As chief justice, he is keenly aware of his leadership role on the court, and he also is sensitive to how the court is perceived by the public,” CBS wrote.
Roberts’ decision could have taken down the entire, massive health care law that his fellow Republicans deride as “Obamacare.” He could have prevented the Supreme Court decision that largely disabled the most disputed aspects of Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, according to Yahoo. But he didn’t do either.
Roberts had to withstand a month-long, desperate campaign to bring him back to his original position, the sources said. Ironically, Justice Anthony Kennedy – believed by many conservatives to be the justice most likely to defect and vote for the law – led the effort to try to bring Roberts back to the fold.
“He was relentless,” a source told CBS News of Kennedy’s efforts. “He was very engaged in this.” Meanwhile, at the age of 57, Roberts could lead the court for another quarter-century.
Up until now, it had been the Kennedy Court, Erwin Chemerinsky, a liberal scholar who is dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine, said, “This year, it was the Roberts Court.”
Ben Wittes, a legal scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, cautioned against grand re-evaluations of Roberts because of the health care case.
“Roberts is, to be sure, no shrinking violet about ideologically divided opinions when, in his view, the law compels them, but he apparently has a more flexible view than do his conservative colleagues concerning the difference for constitutional purposes between a penalty and a tax,” Wittes said.
“In other words, don’t be too surprised if Roberts next terms looks like a conservative again. He actually did not stray very far from where the other four conservatives ended up in this case — just over a consequential line,” he added.
The 5-4 ruling in favor of preserving the mandate may have also fit into a bigger picture. The Huff Post’s blogger Adam Winkler said that Roberts’ heaviest interest is not health care, writing that the chief justice may want to “preserve the Court’s capital to take on other big issues.”
Roberts repeated his desire to have the court adhere to judicial modesty Thursday at the start of his health care opinion.
“We do not consider whether the act embodies sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the nation’s elected leaders. We ask only whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the challenged provisions,” Roberts wrote.